Ghosts of Christmas Past 

Bittersweet Yuletide memories from the Jabo Jowers household

Bittersweet Yuletide memories from the Jabo Jowers household

I get a little sad at Christmastime. Not a bah humbug, mean-tempered kind of sad, but more of a counting-up-the-losses kind of sad. Like just about everybody else, my best Christmas memories come from a long time ago, when other people—my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins—did all the hard work of making Christmas special. They cooked up the fancy food, led the launching of the firecrackers on Christmas Eve, and pulled off the Santa magic on Christmas morning.

This time of year, I miss my daddy, Jabo Jowers, the most. Jabo made Christmas big and bright and fun. He let me throw my first cherry bomb on Christmas Eve, when I was 6. He set me up with a pellet gun and a minibike by the time I was 10. He got me the best present of my life—a Gibson ES-330TDC electric guitar—when I was 12.

In the few Christmases Jabo had left on this earth, he hooked me up with a Corvette, a Cadillac, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and quite a few legal and illegal weapons.

I know, that's not how we want our daddies going about their boy-raising business these days, but it worked out just fine for me. By the time Jabo dropped dead while dancing the bugaloo in 1971, I was fairly well book-educated, streetwise and risk-averse. And, thanks to Jabo, I was able to make a living playing guitar.

I have lived longer, and better, than Jabo did. All Jabo ever got for Christmas was a billygoat, a gift from his daddy, George Jowers. If you want an example of sorry-ass daddying, consider George Jowers: a full-time unemployed chain-smoking drunk, with no skills and no charm. He pulled Jabo out of school when he was in the fourth grade and made him work at the Colonial Bakery in Augusta, Ga. Jabo's bakery money was the family's only income. To hear Jabo tell it, the only childhood fun he ever had was when he taught that billygoat to butt George Jowers off the porch of the Jowers shack in Augusta.

Jabo was the Christmas front man for all my happy Christmases. Meanwhile, my mother, Susie Jowers, was the hardworking stagehand. She, along with my Aunt Coot, cooked up 20-something cakes every Dec. 23—chocolate, strawberry, lemon, coconut and caramel, and something they called Japanese fruitcake. I remember getting dizzy just from smelling them coming out of the oven.

On Christmas Eve, all the aunts, uncles and cousins would come to the Jowers house, where Susie and Coot would serve the turkey, cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes, rolls and cakes. It was a fine setting for the one day a year when every Jowers, Grimes, Boyd and Cleckley in driving distance could get together and take their time enjoying each other.

I'm half-ashamed to admit it, but my memories of my mother at Christmastime aren't so merry and bright. Susie was sweet on the outside, bitter on the inside. As soon as all the relatives cleared out, she'd drop the hostess act and focus on the things that had gone wrong—a little spilled gravy, a lopsided cake, a missing plate. She'd stomp her foot and yell out her mantra: "Everything I touch turns to crap!"

Well, don't you know, on Susie's last Christmas Eve on earth, she chided Jabo for buying me the guitar, right in front of me, then stomped out of the room. She never made a word of apology, never quit fuming at Jabo for buying me the guitar. Now that's burned into my memory like the pictures of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. Just as Susie would have predicted, she turned the last Jowers nuclear-family Christmas into crap.

A lot has passed since then. I played a lot of rock 'n' roll in a lot of bars, with a lot of bands. I married wife Brenda and we had daughter Jess. I started a legitimate, tax-paying business (unlike Jabo, who was a prime player in the underground economy).

These days, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about how many of the people who used to be part of my Christmases have ended up in the ground. Jabo and Susie, Aunt Coot, Aunt Bonnie and Uncle F.H. are cheek-to-jowl in Sunset Memory Gardens. I've got no aunts—and just one good uncle—left.

The last good band Christmas was about 20 years ago, when we played a biker bar in Daytona Beach. At the end of the night, when the lights went up, we saw that a good many of the drunk patrons had left their brand-new leather outerwear hanging on the backs of their chairs. So, with the blessing of the waitresses—who told us they weren't running any lost and found—we collected the coats and jackets that fit us and our girlfriends, and we took them back home to South Carolina. It was leather-jacket Christmas for everybody.

Now that band of four is down to two-and-a-half. Rick Montgomery, my co-guitar player, and one of the few bandmates who ever saw me play the ES-330, got kidney cancer and died about three years ago. My drummer, whose name I probably ought not mention, has a problem with overindulgence and isn't doing so well these days.

So I have to remind myself that Christmas is the time the daylight starts to exceed the dark, and there's more good to come.

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